Lucky for the rain

We’ve had a soggy spring.  My daughter pointed out that the grass is good and green.  She credits it all to the rain.

She’s partly right.  Without enough rain the grass wouldn’t be nearly as green.

But it’s also true that I have spent my weekends maximizing how healthy my well-watered grass is.  I use both chemical and organic fertilizer.  I aerate the soil, keep the ph balance where it needs to be and I keep the lawn cut to the right height.  Edging and trimming help as well.

I feel the same way about a planned giving program.

Anyone with integrity who does this work will tell you that most planned gifts come unexpectedly, and more often because of the desire of the donor than the efforts of the staff.  Nearly any high-visibility nonprofit has received significant, even game-changing  bequests from people it had never heard of before.

They did as much to receive these gifts as I do to receive the rain.

But this doesn’t mean we should just hope for rain.   There are several things that your church should be doing to increase the chances of benefiting from these gifts:

When you do receive such a gift, make it well-known.  Announce the gift when it is made but more importantly as that gift starts to have a positive impact on the ministry of the church. 

Establish policies for receiving these gifts and for the management of your endowment.  This will send the message that you are prepared to be good stewards of these gifts.

Hold a planned giving seminar or other educational opportunity for your members at least once a year.

And as anyone who has ever heard me speak about communicating about planned gifts, the most important piece is to connect money given years ago to the impact it has today.  Make sure they know, for instance, that the parking lot paving is the result of a strong endowment.

There is an African proverb that says “move your feet while you pray.”  Go ahead and hope and pray for “lucky” planned gifts.  But move your feet along the way and watch your luck increase.

Quadrant 2: A summer vacation destination

In the two months I have been writing this blog I have been interested to see what prompts readers to send comments and emails.  One that surprised me was the gentle chide that churches shut down administratively in the summer then wonder why people stop coming to worship.  But all of those who gave me an “amen” on this one agreed that it won’t change anytime soon.

So instead of fighting it, I offer a compromise.  Using Stephen R. Covey’s teachings, spend some time this summer with your church leaders in Quadrant 2, the important/not urgent area.  This is where planning, visioning and evaluation take place.

With other committees on hiatus this may be the perfect time to get your church leaders to take a step back and see where you are.  Rather than focusing on this month’s work of their committees they can take a larger view, a Quadrant 2 view.

Find a quiet patio, make some lemonade and have a thoughtful, strategic session.

Dust off your strategic plan (you DO have a strategic plan don’t you?) and see how it’s coming.  If you haven’t done much with it in the last 2 1/2 years there’s a good chance it’s a bit out of date.  Does it need to be trashed and a new one begun or does it need to be tweaked?  How are your projections in terms of programming, worship attendance and finances?  What balls have been dropped and need to get going again?

In addition to your work with the strategic plan, do the same with your endowment.  An endowment/planned giving program is the epitome of Quadrant II work.    Before Labor Day you and your leaders should review your endowment policy to make sure it is doing the work it should be.  And while you’re at it get a planned giving seminar on the calendar for the fall.  We at the Foundation can help with both of these.

Church committees tend to get into a rhythm.  At the September meeting they do Task A, and in October they do Task B, all from the Important/Urgent quadrant (and surely at least a bit in the Not Important row as well).  Spending some time this summer will help to get out of the rhythm/rut and make sure you are going the right direction.

And once your key church leaders have done this for a summer, encourage every single committee, task force and board in your church to schedule one meeting every summer where they can only work on Quadrant 2 stuff.  I have no doubt that you will have significant resistance at first.  But I am equally sure that you will find the urgent work during the school year to be more productive if you have taken the time to get ready and aim before you fire.

The Kingdom or the Castle?

Last week Rev. Fred Leasure, my counterpart from Western Pennsylvania, was talking with our board about a number of issues around church finance, stewardship and UM Foundations.  He had 10 great bullet points and one of them really stuck with me.

Seek the Kingdom, not the Castle.

He was saying that churches should not get too wound up on nice buildings, but rather they should put their resources toward Kingdom Work.

My memory banks went back to a statistic that Jessica Vargo, our Conference Treasurer, shared at Lakeside.  Our churches spend 34% of their budgets  on buildings every year.  This includes mortgages, utilities, property insurance, taxes on the parsonage and related upkeep.  All told, our churches spend $35.7 million in these areas.  That’s a lot of money.

Am I opposed to this?   Not necessarily.

It depends on what happens in those buildings.

On our way to church we pass several other churches.  One of them, not United Methodist, has made some interesting investments in the building.  The church now has large landscaping mounds next to the road.  At about six feet high they provide a buffer and privacy for the church.  And where the driveway cuts through those mounds they have installed a pair of gates.  Other than Sunday morning I have never seen those gates opened. 

Seems like a moat and drawbridge for a castle, doesn’t it?

I don’t know how much they spent on these improvements, but I am opposed to every nickel of it.  These improvements, whether intended to or not, tell the community they are not welcome.

A building needs to be a tool for ministry.  If we spend $35.7 milllion to make our buildings more welcoming, I’m all in favor of it.  If we buy paint every year because the afterschool program for neighborhood kids scuffs up the walls, it’s money well spent.

Too often we try to be good stewards by protecting the building, making sure that the carpet and paint last forever.  Let’s shift that paradigm.  We don’t serve communion with the goal of maximizing the leftover bread and juice.  We offer it freely and enthusiastically, symbolic of how Christ did the same for us.

Let’s set a goal to have as many dirty fingerprints as we can in our buildings.  If we’re not repainting fellowship hall every year demand an explanation and hold people accountable. 

Our buildings should be a tool for kingdom work, not castles to our own glory.  If not, we’re wasting a third of our collective budgets on the things.

An entrepreneurial church?

I spent some time with my good friend Dave last week.  In our hour-long conversation there were two pieces that at the time I thought were completely disconnected, but now I think they’re tied together.

On one hand we were talking about the United Methodist church where he and his family are members.  The first time I was there was when his son Brendon was baptized about 13 years ago.

He asked if I knew of any churches that were webcasting the worship service.  His church, like so many, has a good-sized youth group but once the kids go away to college the church loses touch with them.  And after college it is unlikely that they will go to church, any church, with the regularity they did when they lived with mom and dad.  They were looking for a way to keep this “connected generation” connected with the church.   Posting worship on line seemed like a good way to do this.

Almost in passing, he pointed out that any effort to video record the service would have to be done without any money, as there is nothing in the budget this year for such a project.

About half an hour later he said his son Brendon was interested in starting a small lawn mowing business.  Perhaps he had the entrepreneurial spirit and Dave wanted to nurture that.  We talked about how we were both raised to go to college, get good grades and get hired by a good company.  Starting a business was never developed in either of us.

Dave was reading Rich Dad Poor Dad, a book about exactly this topic.  I had read The Millionaire Next Door, a similar book.  Clearly in our society, the people with wealth are more likely to be business entrepreneurs than to simply work for someone else.  You have to take risks to have rewards.

Which gets us back to the discussion about posting worship services on-line. 

Churches are willing to spend money on what they know:  bricks and mortar, utilities, salaries for pastors and other staff.   But we’re not willing to risk money, especially “other people’s money” that comes in through the collection plate. 

As a result, we have churches that are the equivalent of stuck in middle management for a large company.  We get our 3% raise every year (yes, you’ve heard about that before), we pay our mortgage and can pay the loan for our Chevy.

But only by taking that entrepreneurial risk to dive head long into moving our church forward can we really grow.  A previous post refers to offering a wild, untamed life-changing relationship with a living and loving God through Jesus.

We don’t think of middle managers having wild untamed life-changing adventures do we?  We leave those for the risk takers.

What is God calling his church to be?

Who’s kissing your best girl?

When I was a young man I was too shy to kiss my best girl.  Boy was I hopping mad when I found out that she wasn’t shy and had been kissing all the boys in town.”

I have had lots of conversations with lots of people in lots of churches, but that was my favorite.  Interestingly, it was about planned giving.

In the meeting I had made the point that many churches are uncomfortable talking to their members about making planned gifts, such as leaving the church in their wills or establishing charitable gift annuities.  I reminded the group that other organizations, such as a member’s alma mater, museums, children’s organizations and performing groups are all talking about these gifts and the church should as well.

But it was that older gentleman who really put it in perspective for me after the meeting.  We’re too shy to ask our members for these gifts, but everyone else in town is doing so.

When people are alive, one dollar in three that they give to charity goes to a religious organization, a church, a mosque or synagogue.  But when you look at planned gifts, the number is closer to one in 20.

Why the disonnect?  Because we’re shy about kissing.

Think about the cycle of your relationship with your alma mater.  You graduated at age 22 (OK, age 25 if you’re part of the younger generation) and your relationship tapers from there.  You go back every so many years for a reunion or attend an event.  But when you go back you recognize fewer buildings and certainly fewer people.

But how about church?  Not ony does the church maintain an important part of your life up to the end, with a funeral it actually extends beyond your life.  Research has shown that as retired folks continue to age the church they attend actually grows in significance. 

So why do colleges and universities receive more planned gifts than churches?  Because they ask for them.

For the record, I have absolutely no problem in our members supporting whatever organization they want to with their estate planning.  But shouldn’t we at least send the message that the church is interested in talking about these kinds of gifts?

At your next Stewardship or Endowment Committee meeting establish a plan to make planned giving part of your conversation with your members in the coming year.  If you’re not sure how to do that, give me a call.  To find contact information click on the Foundation website link to the right.

A 60 cent vision

In Monday’s blog entry I talked about the insidiousness of the standard 3% budget increase that we have taught our members to expect from the church each year.  It’s a convenient arrangement, they increase their giving 3%, we increase our budget 3% and we can expect more of the same.

I had several emails asking why I was opposed to this approach, generally with the “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” approach.

Let’s look at the numbers.

The average United Methodist family in this country gives about 1.5% of its income to the church every year.  According to Uncle Sam the average household income for a family of four in Ohio is about $68,000.  So a family attending Average United Methodist Church is giving $1,020 to the church.  If you think about it, run this past your financial secretary and see how accurate it is. 

At $1,020 per year that averages to $85 per month or not quite $20 per week.  To meet a church budget increase of 3% that family would have to increase its giving by just 60 cents per week. (At this point I tried to come up with something that costs 60 cents to hammer home the illustration.  To be honest with you, I couldn’t come up with anything.)

Wrap your imagination around this scenario:  The minister on Commitment Sunday gets all wound up, preaches his best fire and brimstone sermon.  The congregation is at the edge of the pews, ready to charge into battle for God.  “What are you calling us to do, pastor, how can we move the Kingdom of God ahead in our world?” they are all asking in their minds.  As the veins pop out of the pastor’s forehead he calls on them to be good stewards, to follow the examples of Christ, to give what they have.

“God is calling you to be sacrificial givers this year,” he says.  You can feel the nervous energy in the sanctuary.  The organist kicks up the volume a little, getting ready to bust out the Hallelujah Chorus.  The congregation leans in for a better look as the pastor reaches into his pocket.  Oooh, a visual aide, you know it’s a good sermon when he has one of those.  With great drama he pulls out his hand and shows the contents, two quarters and a dime.

“This, my dear friends, is the size of the vision of this church.”

The organist turns the volume down again.  The congregation sits back in the pews and starts wondering what the special is at the restaurant after church. 

I realize that not everyone in your congregation has an awful lot of extra cash hanging around, especially now.  But is your vision for your church really only worth an extra 60 cents a week?   If you presented a strong, mission-minded vision for your congregation and got them excited about it, could you ask them for an extra $2 per week?  How about $5 or $10?  I bet a lot of your congregation could give that much without really feeling it.

For that member of Average United Methodist Church, giving an extra $10 a  week would increase his or her giving 50%.  That’s the good news.  The bad news is they would still just be giving a bit over 2%, but we’ll work with baby steps here.

But if the people of your congregation did increase giving by 50% you could afford one heck of a vision.

There are certainly exceptions to what I am about to say and I don’t want to paint things with an overly-broad brush.  But I believe that in most of our churches the problem is not that the people do not have enough money.  I believe the problem is the church doesn’t have enough vision.

A bit over a year ago I was in a Bible study talking about giving and someone said that he and his wife have not increased their giving at all in the last ten years.  Not even to keep pace with inflation.  The number of dollars has remained constant.  He said he looks around and sees the church has enough money to do what it wants to do.  We end the year in the black.  We pay our apportionments.  We have great clergy.  No need to give more.

In his mind, level giving was getting the work of the church accomplished.  No need to get crazy.

When was the last time your church cast a vision for the future?  Not a 60 cent vision, but a $5 or $10 vision.  I have a feeling that if you presented such a vision, not only would your current members support it, but the pews would be a bit fuller on Sunday morning.

Work with your members to develop a vision that challenges them.  The results may surprise you.

More than the status quo

If this blog piques your interest, you can click on the “sign me up” button on the right to subscribe and have the weekly update sent directly by email.

In his book Linear Giving Rev. Neil Orchard goes directly against some of the most widely-read stewardship experts of our time.

And I think he’s dead right.

The common wisdom is that the budget process and stewardship program should be completely disconnected.  Don’t provide a budget and ask the congregation to fund it.  Make stewardship about responding to what God had provided. 

Reverend Orchard points out that the way this usually works is the finance committee operates out of a scarcity model.  Budget requests come in, they pare them back to show an annual increase of 3% or so, members increase their giving by an equally modest amount, payroll is met, checks clear and everyone is happy.

But how many of us have a 3% mentality anywhere else in our lives?  I look at what I was paid in my first job out of graduate school 20 years ago.  If I had a 3% increase every year I would be paid just about half what I am now.  I imagine many of you have had the same experience.  We tend to dream smaller for our church than we do for ourselves.

Rev. Orchard proposes that we present the same ol same ol, the 3% budget we have conditioned our members to expect.  But then have a step.  What would happen to our ministry if giving increased 10%?  We would hire that full time youth director we have always wanted, upgrade the lighting in the sanctuary and send a dozen volunteers to Haiti for a mission trip.  If it went up 20% we would do all of the above plus replace the carpet in the narthex, add a contemporary worship service and expand our after school program to include dinner for the student’s family.

Do you dare dream what you could do if it increased 50%?  Or more?

Go ahead, live a little, have that dream.  I’ll wait.

Here’s the dirty little secret.  The average United Methodist in the U.S. gives about 1.5% of the family income to the church.  That’s one-seventh of a tithe.  Do the math.  What is the number if your church budget increased seven fold?  What would your ministry look like if you had those kinds of resources?

Bishop Hopkins calls us to be mission outposts in our communities.  What kind of mission outpost would you be with that kind of money?

I love finance committees. In many churches it is the hardest working group.  But they tend to be lousy dreamers.  Give your entire congregation the job of deciding how big of a dream your church can afford.  Then assign the finance committee to figure out how to spend that boat load of cash.

You can learn more about Rev. Orchard and Linear Giving at

Things to do before Memorial Day

I offer a mid-week blog entry, a nuts and bolts edition to make sure your campaign isn’t caught flat-footed at the last minute.

With school vacations starting in just more than a month we know that many church committees will soon be shutting down for the summer.  Before you let your stewardship committee start applying sunscreen make sure you have done some groundwork for this fall’s campaign.

Decide to have a campaign.  While this may be automatic for many subscribers to this blog, the reality is that fewer than half of the churches have a stewardship campaign every year.   Churches that ask for a commitment receive significantly more income than those who pass the plate and hope.

Set a date for the Sunday for people to make their commitments.  For some churches this may be a week with little else on the calendar.  Others find that attendance is boosted by having the children’s choir sing or another special event. 

Schedule any guest speakers.  If you are using Herb Miller’s Consecration Sunday a visiting preacher is mandatory.  Others may find it helpful to have a speaker from a mission or outreach project several weeks before Commitment Sunday.  The Conference Treasurer’s Office does a great job supplying speakers to discuss Shared Ministry Funds (formerly known as apportionments).   If you have not booked your SMF speaker by Annual Conference it will probably not happen during the traditional stewardship season.

Consider a challenging church-wide study for earlier in the fall. Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Church is the gold standard.  Many United Methodist churches are reading Bishop Schnase’s Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations.  Stewardship in a context of vision and growth is always more effective (both financially and spiritually) than simply asking for money.

There will be plenty of time to work out the details in September, but at least have  a direction before the weather gets warm.

The fact that churches shut down their choirs and administrative meetings for the summer then wonder why no one comes to worship has always amused me.  I won’t fight that battle (at least not this week); I’ll simply acknowledge it and encourage you to realize its implications in planning for the fall.

Should the differences be this big?

Last week I was chatting with the pastor of a growing church. Not surprisingly the conversation turned to stewardship and he asked me an interesting question: Why are churches so far behind other nonprofit organizations when it comes to raising money.

I took an extra drink of my iced tea. It gave me a chance to think.

The first thing I came up with was that nonprofits have full-time staff dedicated to doing that work. Baldwin-Wallace College has about a dozen professionals on its fund raising staff. This does not include clerical and support staff, public relations people or alumni staff. I know of just a single church in our conference with a staff member for stewardship and he is part time.

The second difference is expectations. This same pastor told me that when he came to his current church he was told that he should not do a stewardship campaign. Keep it low key. Don’t ruffle feathers. People will give. He did, and they give. When a CEO walks into any other nonprofit he or she has a burden of fund raising expectations on the shoulders. Buildings must be erected or remodeled. Endowments must grow. The vision must be funded. Our expectations for the pastor are to not ruffle feathers.

The third, and I think the most important, is that churches do not talk about money. Go to a major theatrical or musical performance and there in the program is the list of donors, sorted by level of giving. We look at the biggest donors and wonder if we recognize any names. Big contributors get to meet backstage, have access to the best seats and have their pictures taken wearing tuxedos.

In the church we have a culture that no one, not even the minister, should ever know what someone gives. I believe that culture is the result of people ashamed of what they give.

Large nonprofits will put a major donor’s name on the front of the building. Churches let small donors teach us to be ashamed of that we give.

OK, enough of my grumbling.  What should we be doing differently? 

First, stewardship cannot be something we only do three weeks every fall.  Ministers should preach about it at least quarterly and have it in front of them all year.  Good fund raising really is about connecting a need with people who can fill that need.  These opportunities happen throughout the year.

Second, we as a church should not breath a sigh of relief when our new minister announces he doesn’t really “do stewardship.”   We need to insist that the financial resources of the church are not an afterthought.  Every church should have an annual goal-setting process.  The staff-parish and stewardship committees should work together to set reasonable but clear goals for the pastor and the church.  Quarterly stewardship sermons, ongong training for key leaders, reading and discussions and, of course, the expectation that the fall stewardship campaign needs to not only happen but be done well and creatively.

Third, we need to talk about money.  If we didn’t have a big enough parking lot, we would talk about it.  If the roof leaked, we would talk about it.  Money is a tool for ministry, just as the physical plant of the church is a tool.  Let’s talk about our needs, our dreams, our vision for ministry and how stronger giving in our congregations can make those visions come to reality.

Those are my thoughts about the differences between churches and other organizations. What are yours?

A different kind of pastoral visit

Last week I attended a fund raising conference.  In the vendors’ area were more than a dozen services that provide donor profile information.  A nonprofit would submit its donors’ names and addresses and these services would compare them to public information databases.  By matching your donors with the property they own, the cars, boats and airplanes they register, the political contributions they make, age and if they have licenses to practice medicine or law, they develop a profile and a likely gift amount, assuming the nonprofit has properly built the relationship.  I had them run my profile.  The results are profoundly (and a bit disturbingly) accurate.

Amazing stuff.  And, for many organizations, a gold mine of information.  The implication is that the leaders can be spending time with those that can best make a difference in the life of those served.  After all, fund raising is not a democracy.  Not everyone has the same ability and inclination to make a significant gift.

Most nonprofits would love to know as much about their donors as we know about ours.  Think about it.  The museum you support probably does not know how many children you have, but a minister gets a call often within a few hours or a day after the child is born.  The church baptizes, educates, marries, counsels, and helps bury the families of its members, its donors.

But what do we do with that information?  Many pastors tell me that they don’t want to know what their members give to the church; they need to be able to treat all of their flock well, no matter how much they give.  I think a minister who says this is selling himself short. Does he (or she) really not trust himself?  Will he visit only those who are the largest contributors?

Why do we take an egalitarian approach to our stewardship efforts?  Your local university would never think about soliciting its largest Presidents Inner Circle donor the same way it solicits a $5 donor.  But that is how it has been done in Methodism since John Wesley slept on kitchen tables.

Between now and commitment Sunday (generally in the fall) I challenge you to make a personal call on each of the top 10% of your “giving units” (I really need to invent a better term for that).  If you have 100 commitment cards turned in, make ten visits.  During that time, do not ask them for a cent.  Instead, thank them for holding the church as a financial priority in their lives.  Let them know how their gifts support our mission to Make Disciples of Jesus Christ for the Transformation of the World.  What does this support mean for your local church, the Conference and our work around the world?

I have a feeling that your largest contributors are generous to other organizations as well.  Just because they get 50 yard line football tickets from their alma mater does not mean that they should get preferential seating during worship (which in most churches would be in the back row rather than up front).  But I think they do need to be reminded that their support of the church is every bit as important as their gifts to other places.

As a church we have a relationship that other organizations envy.  Let’s not take it for granted.

P.S.  If you take me up on this challenge I would be happy to talk you through how that visit might go.  And I would love to hear how it is received.

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